The Struggle of a Faithful Dissenter

Father Gleb Yakunin

Father Gleb Yakunin

By Faith J. H. McDonnell –

On Christmas Day, 2014, a warrior laid down his sword. Gleb Pavlovich Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest and heroic dissident who challenged both the Soviet regime and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), died in Moscow. He was 80.

Yakunin was both prisoner and parliamentarian. He spoke out for persecuted Christians and other dissidents across the Soviet Union, and against the collaboration and collusion of the leaders of the ROC and other registered churches with the Communist government. In response, he was punished by both State and Church.

Throughout his life Yakunin longed to see spiritual revival in Russia. He wanted this for his beloved Orthodox Church, but he wanted it for all of the Christian communities, as well. Yakunin’s call was to address the faithful’s betrayal by their leadership that had been co-opted by the Soviet regime. Church leaders failed to defend their flocks from Communist persecution by speaking out to the world, and even acted as agents of the Communist party.

Almost incidentally, Yakunin’s calling out the Russian church leadership also led to his exposing the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) collusion with the Soviets – preferring harmony with Communists over defending the victims of Communism.

“It makes a difference to Soviet Christians that their persecution has not only been ignored, but covered up by fellow-Christians,” wrote Edmund W. Robb and his daughter Julia Robb in their book The Betrayal of the Church. “It makes a difference to Gleb Yakunin that as he freezes in his cell, punished for his faithfulness to God, fellow-Christians ignore his suffering.” The late Rev. Robb was a United Methodist evangelist and the chairman of the board of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) – an outspoken advocate for religious liberty during the Cold War era.

Throughout his struggle to be a voice for freedom and tolerance, Yakunin had a very close relationship with the IRD. The courageous dissident figured prominently in The Puzzle of the Soviet Church: An Inside Look at Christianity and Glasnost written by Dr. Kent R. Hill, president of IRD and an expert on the former Soviet Union.

In 1992, Yakunin was the recipient of the IRD’s Religious Freedom Award “for speaking out on persecution under totalitarianism, including the collaboration between his own church and the KGB.”

Yakunin was ordained in 1962 during Khrushchev’s virulent antireligious crusade. In 1965, he and another priest, Nikolai Eshliman, sent an open letter to ROC leader Patriarch Aleksy and to the Soviet government. The 40-page letter decried “not only the persecution of believers but de facto church collusion in this persecution,” according to a memorial tribute to Yakunin by Cathy Young on The Daily Beast website.

In his book on religious persecution, Hill revealed that this “bold action by the brave priests” was supported by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who said: “I had been delighted to read the protest written by two priests, Eshliman and Yakunin, a courageous, pure, and honest voice in defense of a church which of old had lacked and lacks now both the skill and the will to defend itself. I read, and was envious. Why had I not done something like this myself, why was I so unenterprising?. . . I must do something similar!”

Yakunin and Eshliman’s actions were not supported by Orthodox leadership, though. They were defrocked by Aleksy in May 1966, “until they repented their criticism of church leadership.” Eshliman left the priesthood and Yakunin found odd jobs to avoid the charge of “parasitism” until he was reinstated.

In 1976, Yakunin founded the Christian Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Believers in the USSR, a counterpart to the Moscow Helsinki Watch. According to Religious Diversity and Human Rights, the committee’s “interdenominational concern with the rights of all believers, not just Orthodox, reflected the extent to which the Orthodox rights movement had been shaped by the general human rights movement.” Other analysts reported that the Soviet regime considered the committee the most serious act of public defiance within the Orthodox Church.

By 1980, the Christian Committee collected more than 11 volumes documenting human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. These documents even reached the West. And as a result, Yakunin was arrested.

On August 28, 1980, Yakunin was convicted under “the notorious Article 70, of ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’” and sentenced to five years of strict regime camp and five years internal exile. “I rejoice that the Lord has sent me this test,” Yakunin told the court. “As a Christian I accept it gladly.”

Yakunin was first imprisoned at the KGB Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, then in Perm Camp 35, deep in the Ural Mountains. Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1983 that Yakunin was held in a “freezing stone cubicle without bed, clothes or food.” Finally he was exiled “to a remote village in the Republic of Yakutia,” a region under snow for two-thirds of the year, with temperatures as low as -60C degrees. But his exile was cut short in March 1987 by peristroyka under Mikhail Gorbachev and he was finally able to return to Moscow and to his family.

In 1990, Yakunin was elected to the first genuinely-elected Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. He was deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Conscience and co-authored the “freedom of all denominations” law that was used to reopen churches and monasteries throughout the country.

Yakunin visited the IRD offices in March of 1992 during a visit to Washington, DC with his fellow Russian parliament member, Lev Ponomaryov. Ponomaryov, a physicist and human rights activist, led the commission to investigate the KGB files. At a Capitol Hill press conference, he and Yakunin formally released the secret documents that confirmed the link between the KGB and the Russian Orthodox Church.

IRD reported of the press conference: “Father Gleb knows the names of collaborators with the KGB, but does not want to name them publicly. It is his wish that the church deal with this matter internally, and that those who worked with the KGB will openly confess their sins. Father Gleb wants to see repentance in his church.”

Later that year, IRD presented Yakunin with its Religious Freedom Award. Still flexing their Soviet-era muscles, the ROC leadership once again defrocked Yakunin a few months after he received the award, ostensibly for holding political office. He had again won election in 1993, this time to the first parliament of the new independent Russia.

Furthermore, in 1997, Yakunin was excommunicated and anathematized for “anti-church activities” and for the continued defiance of wearing priestly vestments in spite of being defrocked. He was also condemned for associating with a breakaway Ukrainian church, the Kiev Patriarchate, and for creating another breakaway church, the Apostolic Orthodox Church.

“In this new Russia where belonging to the church has become a badge of loyalty to the state, Yakunin remained as much of a rebel as he had been under the Soviet regime in which loyal citizenship required militant atheism,” wrote Young.

It should be noted that Yakunin was not a rebel for the sake of being a rebel. He did not condemn the ROC leadership’s collusion with State powers – whether Communist era or Putin era – because he enjoyed criticizing church leaders. He grieved over Russia’s missed opportunity for a “post-Communist spiritual revival.”

“Because Christ is Lord, Caesar is not Lord,” wrote the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus in the founding document of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. “By humbling all secular claims to sovereignty, the Church makes its most important political contribution by being, fully and unapologetically, the Church.” Gleb Yakunin’s struggle with both State and Church was for that purpose. His willingness to endure persecution defied the Communist regime’s claim to sovereignty and stood in stark contrast to those who accepted compromise to avoid suffering.

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007). 

 

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